In an attempt to start an interesting debate during an otherwise dull and tedious social gathering, I was asked who I would choose from beyond the grave to invite to my ideal fantasy dinner party. Those standing nearby me may still be wondering why I had suggested Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde because soon after revealing my guest list to them I had made my excuses and left for the evening. When a hostess has to resort to fantasies with the celebrity dead to liven up a conversation, that’s the time to leave quietly.
My selection that night however wasn’t random but it also had nothing to do with fantasy get-togethers. At the time I had been researching a trip to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris where all three luminaries are buried. The vast cemetery lies in Belleville, a bohemian neighbourhood east of Gard du Nord where not only is one of France’s greatest international stars buried there, but it is also the area where she lived, grew up and became a star.
Between Ms Piaf’s alleged birthplace and her true final resting place, an apartment where she once lived has been converted into the Musée Edith Piaf: two rooms of the apartment have been filled with mementos and memorabilia related to the star. Unfortunately, the museum was closed the day I was in the area (details about its opening times can be found below), but it was still an honour to be standing on the doorstep often crossed by the woman herself.
Close to Chopin, the grave of legendary rock star Jim Morrison is also regularly covered with heart-felt gestures from fans, but until recently most chose to adorn their hero’s grave with graffiti rather than with floral tributes. The graffiti became so rife and defaced not just the singer’s grave stone but neighbouring stones as well, the authorities eventually put a barricade up to keep fans and their spray cans at a distance.
The barricade hasn’t stopped fans leaving other tributes by their hero’s remains. As well as hair ties and ribbons, a nearby tree has been turned into a Morrison totem where fans stick their chewed gum to its bark. A sheet of bamboo has been tied to the trunk to protect it from further gum additions as nothing seems to deter fans from adding to this collection of spittle. Maybe because chewing gum holds similar connotations associated with Jim Morrison – essentially American and care free – fans choose this unusual way to remember him by. Or it could simply be because one day a fan had no where else to throw his/her piece of gum and others decided to follow suit turning a mindless act into a rather unhygienic tradition. Although I hold some admiration for Jim Morrison, I decided not to add my saliva to anything near the grave and instead paid my respects by jovially humming the chorus to Light My Fire.
Oscar Wilde’s final resting place nearby has also witnessed a deluge of unconventional tributes over the years and as a result has also had measures put in place to protect it.
In Paris’s other grand cemetery in Montparnasse, the grave stone of fellow Irish playwright Samuel Beckett doesn’t seem to suffer from tributes left on it as no one seems to leave any there.
Montparnasse Cemetery is not immune to unusual tributes left on the stones of its famous dead.
Some argue that the metro tickets left on Jean Paul Sartre’s grave symbolise communist struggles for freedom. Jean Paul Sartre was never afraid to show his communist sympathies throughout his life and writing and was famously compared to fellow french philosopher Voltaire when pardoned by President Charles de Gaulle after being arrested for civil disobedience in 1968. “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” said de Gaulle in explanation for the pardon. France has always regarded Voltaire as a great French libertarian renaming Boulevard du Prince-Eugène after him in 1870 because it was the location of endless struggles for freedom and liberty. To this day protests and demonstrations significantly take place along Boulevard Voltaire, and violence has often flared along it. In 1962, nine people were killed by police outside the Charonne metro station located along the boulevard during communist protests against the Algerian war raging at the time. It is therefore believed the metro tickets represent the deaths of those individuals, their struggle and the location of their death, connecting Jean Paul Sartre with Voltaire the location for freedom fighting and Voltaire the freedom fighter.
Or it could just be that the metro tickets are left by fans who misunderstood it to be some sort of tradition practiced at French luminaries’ graves having past Serge Gainsbourg’s head stone beforehand to reach Jean Paul Sartre’s.
The plaque allegedly claiming Edith Piaf’s birthplace and Aux Folies can be found along Rue de Belleville. Belleville metro station lies at the western end of the street on the junction of Boulevard de Belleville.
Aux Folies stands on the corner of the famous – or possibly infamous – Rue Denoyez, the graffiti street of Paris. Practically everything along the street is covered in street art. Stand too long admiring the work and you may get tagged.
Number 72 where Edith Piaf’s ‘birthplace’ plaque can be be found, stands a few doors away from Rue Piat which leads to the stunning panoramic views enjoyed from Belvédère de Belleville at the top of Parc de Belleville.
Musée Edith Piaf can be found at 5 Rue Crespin du Gast, off Rue Oberkampf. It is a very short walk from Ménilmontant metro station on Metro line 2, two stops south of Belleville. Entrance to the museum is free but visits must be booked at least a week in advance. As the museum is located within a private residential building it is not opened to passers-by and only hosts arranged visits on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at certain times of the year. More information and who to contact to book can be found here.
Père Lachaise Cemetery is not far from Parc de Belleville, but if the walk is too much of a distance, the main entrance can be reached from the metro station helpfully of the same name on Metro line 2, three stops south from Belleville. The cemetery is opened daily until 8pm and the entrance is free. It is a vast space with thousands of graves so get a map to find the more famous resting places, or just follow the crowds. The website found here can help locate the more famous graves which are also pinpointed on maps at the various entrances to the cemetery.
Montparnasse Cemetery is not in the neighbourhood of Belleville but is a short walk from Gare Montparnasse, south east of the Eiffel Tower. A number of metro lines reach it. As with Père Lachaise, the cemetery is opened daily until 8pm, entrance is free, and maps at the various entrances help to locate heroes. It is smaller than Père Lachaise but just as easy to get lost in without a map.
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